Building back clean: green communities demands a rail revival

By Jacqueline Starr, CEO, Rail Delivery Group

train tracks through countrysideOver the last 12 months we have had cause to re-evaluate many things, from the way we live and work to the identities of our nation’s heroes, who we learnt are everyday people doing extraordinary things.

It was also a year that brought our relationship with the planet into sharp focus. Images of bush fires in Australia and wildfires in California shocked the world. Global temperature peaks were registered, and closer to home 2020 was confirmed as one of the top five hottest years on record, and one of the top ten wettest years. This trend is expected to continue, with the increased frequency of events like Storm Christoph acting as a sober reminder of the effects of climate change in the UK.

Yet the global coronavirus pandemic gave a temporary respite to soaring emissions. National lockdowns have provided a glimpse of another way of life, a blueprint of a future where our roads are quieter and safer, and the air we breathe is cleaner.

To people working in rail, it’s clear that our industry has a major role to play in delivering on that blueprint for a low-carbon future. Rail will not only support our economic recovery from the unprecedented challenges of the last year, but is an essential component of a green recovery too. For clean air and quiet roads to be a permanent fixture, we need to ensure that as we rebuild from the pandemic, rail becomes the backbone of Britain’s low-carbon transport system.

But there are warning signs that the opposite may happen: the country is on the precipice of a car-led recovery from Covid that risks dealing a major blow to the nation’s legal commitment of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Looking back to last summer, figures suggest that as the UK came out of the first national lockdown, the number of cars and lorries on the road returned almost back to normal with an average of 96% of pre-Coronavirus traffic levels, exceeding pre-virus figures at weekends. Yet rail passenger numbers barely returned to 40% of previous loadings.

The continuation of such a trend, or anything close to it, would be disastrous for our communities and the environment, and must be addressed urgently.

Rail accounts for just 1.4% of transport emissions and 0.5% of the UK total, despite accounting for 10% of all journeys made. So, restoring customer confidence in using public transport and increasing railway patronage to pre-pandemic levels will be essential if we are to meet the Government’s net zero target and its aim for at least a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, compared to 1990 levels.

Indeed, with greater emphasis on the green agenda, rail now has the opportunity to become the sustainable travel mode of choice. Some encouraging data from recent LNER research found that more than a quarter (27%) of customers say the pandemic and its side effects have motivated them to adopt more environmentally friendly travel behaviours, showing us that people do want a green transport option.

To secure these environmental gains, we must work with Government to incentivise low carbon transport and reform decades old fares regulations to make things simpler. An immediate step must be the introduction of flexible season tickets for customers who plan to work from home more. Without this, there is a real risk of commuters returning to their cars in droves once offices reopen.

We need to go further though and rapidly move towards a future where choosing a ticket is easy. Where, instead of navigating a complex range of fares at a ticket office or machine, customers can choose from a better range of walk-up fares, use tap-in-tap-out payment with the security of a price cap, and not worry about the cliff-edge between peak and off-peak prices.

new train GWRBut reforming the fares system isn’t the only answer to a green recovery. A fully decarbonised rail system, including an electrified national high-speed rail network, can give long-distance car travellers a better option and move freight off motorways and onto rail. By creating capacity for more local trains to run on existing lines, it can also reduce congestion in towns and cities.

There is political momentum to go further, faster - the recent UK100 Net Zero Pledge signed by regional leaders committing to reaching Net Zero at least five years earlier than central government is proof that the UK is taking its commitment seriously. But we must accelerate our green reform proposals, and fares reform especially, to ensure the UK reaches its full potential in unlocking low carbon transport.

In November of this year the UK will be on the world stage as global leaders descend on Glasgow to accelerate action on climate change - but we shouldn’t wait till then to kickstart a low-carbon recovery.

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